Sophian Chhayra (left & right) and Zakaria Chentouf (centre) posing for photos that helped send them to prison
On Monday, VICE published an article about a West London drugs gang who were convicted after police found photos of them posing with drugs and drug money on their phones. The article pissed me off, as did the ignorance of many of those who left comments on the piece and on Facebook, comments that imply they are somehow superior. I got in touch with VICE because I felt like I needed to address a few things. The reason it touched a nerve with me is that one of the guys who was sentenced is my cousin.
"Stupid cunts! Hahahaha"
That's what some guy left as a comment on Facebook. Hovering over the commenter's name was enough to find out that he works at Lidl. Now, on this basis I could easily go ahead and say, "Well, clearly he's the stupid cunt and lacks the brains to forge a 'proper career' for himself." But that would be ignorant. For all I know, things could have happened in his life that have stopped him excelling as an individual.
The point I'm trying to make is that it's a matter of perspective. Your walk of life and the subsequent expectations of what you hope to achieve in your time on this planet are not universal. Different people have to find different paths for themselves.
Before I get into it, it's probably best to bat away any accusations of bias. I'm not trying to absolve my kin for his actions; I'm trying to explain them to those whose only experience of Ladbroke Grove came from Kidulthood.
I'm cut from the same cloth as my cousin. I grew up for part of my life on estates that were clearly categorised by ethnicities. Where burners, parcels of drugs and the glamourised vision of "making it" existed. There are a few variables that separate my cousin and me, though. We're both smart guys; we just apply it in different ways. My man could flip money like he was Houdini. Tell me that's not a trait that's loved down in Canary Warf. But it's his socio-economic background that stops him from even entertaining the thought of going into the business world.
Ghettos are an actual thing and they exist in London. I'm sorry to break it to you. West London is filled with Moroccans, Brazilians and West Indians. In North London, where I was raised, are large communities of Turks, Somalis and Nigerians. Wherever you have a system for placing families that is based on race and creed, you have the beginnings of a trap, and the hood's called a trap for a reason. In a way, it's a trivial life of just surviving; you only get to really enjoy life once you're out of the trap. This is something I can vouch for.
One big difference between my cousin and I is that I had a father figure. A father figure who was willing to bust his balls getting me out of London to grow up in a white majority Essex town, where I had far more privileges available to me. That's something I had one-up on over most kids from estates, in fact - the amenities and level of schooling in this white majority area far excelled those available to me the last time I was living in a black majority area. Fuck knows why that should be the case, it could be an essay in itself, but as it stands: it's A Thing.
Fast forward, and nearly a decade after I moved out of London I now hold a post-grad degree and the belief that I'm talented enough at what I do to actually cement myself at the top of my field. If I had stayed in North London, I can guarantee that I would have continued going further down a very different path. In a way, it never really escaped me; I managed to move out of London, but the family finances didn't exactly improve. At one point, I shot class-A to keep afloat with the added costs of an education. If my cousin shot A, it was to chase a lifestyle.
And that lifestyle is capitalism. The majority of people want money. They want money so they can have "nice" things, and ultimately a "nice" life. The socially accepted norm of obtaining money is through a job, but what if life dictated to you limits beyond which you felt you had no right to excel? And those limits were imposed not because of ability, but because of what race and finances you were born into? The London Riots are an example of this. Eventually, what transpired was people's desire for nicer kicks and garms - the same desires as the middle-class white kids over at Wavey Garms. Capitalism drives the dreams of most, but it's more of a harsh reminder to those with less currency. What my cousin did was to earn more money than he could have done working a job that would have only delivered X-amount. He clearly felt he was entitled to more. If you really can't get down with this way of looking at the idea of having to be employed and only being offered a certain amount of growth, I suggest you read Mario Puzo's Godfather where Don Corleone explains it perfectly.
My life experiences and recognition of the opportunities I've been provided has given me a desire to leave behind a legacy of some sort. I want to have an impact. This is coming from a guy who could have easily become the same type of figure as my cousin. Yeah, he fucked up and made a stupid move. I expected better from him. But these photos haven't been scraped from Facebook, and the dude's far from stupid, as a lot of people from behind a few screens are claiming. Who's to say my cousin couldn't have gone on to do something had he been given the same chances as me? Life is a messy piece of shit, and so many factors are at play in all of our back-stories - who are you to say that your expectations of life are the correct measure by which to judge someone else's?
Writer's note: Just to clarify, the photos weren't what convicted them, they were pieces of incriminating evidence in a long investigation prior to the seizure of said pics. If that were me, I would never have kept the photos - as I say in the piece, it was a stupid move. The point of the article is to open more of a discussion as to why stuff like this happens. To talk about the roots of a problem, and not just the problem itself.
More stuff about London gangs: